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The Shadow of a Gunman

The Times, 2nd April 1980, Irving Wardle

Chris Dyer’s set for this O’Casey centenary production replaces the upstage windows of the tenement room with a back wall over which something has been violently splashed. Blood, you think at first, and then recognise the marks for what they are: huge ink blots.

‘The Shadow of a Gunman’ has been much celebrated as a public play. First performed during the war of independence, it saved the Abbey Theatre from bankruptcy and earned its author £4. With this piece, articulating the farcical horrors of the time O’Casey achieved a mesmeric hold over the Dublin audience who subsequently never forgave him for turning his back on them.

Without denying the play’s public aspect, Michael Bogdanov’s production also asks you to remember its devious and unheroic creator who had quit the Irish Citizens Army when things started turning nasty. He was already 43 when ‘The Gunman’ appeared, but it is still a young man’s play, fired by a mixture of arrogance and self-loathing of a man to whom the act of writing is at once a life’s mission and a cowardly evasion of reality.

This matters because it had led to a misjudgement of the play. ’The Gunman’ consists essentially of a duologue between the two occupants of the room: the peddler Seumas and the poet Donal whom the rest of the house mistake for an IRA man on the run.  Past audiences have laughed at Seumas and the other tenement dwellers, and admired the superbly controlled collisions of stark horror and irreclaimable Dublin absurdity. But the sight of Donal quoting Shelley and patronizing the rest of the company has been seen as a gaping flaw in the middle of the play.

It does no seem so this time. Michael Pennington’s Donal avoids any trace of ingratiation. He spits out his contempt for the people, treats his visitors with a condescension that makes you squirm, and succumbs to Dearbhla Molloy’s Minnie, the girl who finally dies for him, with a patronizing lust worthy of O’Casey’s own confessions in that department.

As a result, he and Norman Rodway’s marvellous Seumas come over as two sides of the same act: idealistic heroics in dialogue with pugnacious cowardice. And when the queue of IRA fans start besieging the door, bestowing the flattering attentions he never received as a poet, Mr Pennington shows Donal growing to his rightful place in the Irish stage tradition: a playboy who never begins playing.

In comparison Seumas is a gift of a part, and Mr Rodway with urgently popping eyes, sublime lack of self-awareness, and wonderful control of the verbal repetitions even when spraying crumbs out of his mouth, extracts all the juice from it. Among the visitors I particularly admired Paul Webster’s boozily self-righteous Orangeman, toasting the Boyne with umbrella swings that almost decapitate his wife; and Kilian McKenna as the star-struck Tommy trembling from head to foot in moot timidity before raising the roof with a Republican chorus.

Mr Bogdanov’s production is rightly a celebration of dramatic character: it also underscores the play’s unforgiving irony in those repeated rhymes where smugness and false heroics possess the stage in the moment the next outburst of gunfire sends everyone scurrying for cover.

The Stage and Television Today, 6th August 1981, R.B. Marriott

Sean O’Casey’s first produced play, ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’, dating from 1923, has been staged with truly grim realism and an essential tragic sense by Michael Bogdanov at The Warehouse, after a season at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Set in a shabby rooming house in the Dublin slums, the leading figure is the brooding young poet, Donal Davoren, lofty-minded yet diffident. Around him are the denizens of the place, poor and loving, silly and gabbling, elevated in ideas and crushed by poverty, fear and inaction. The males would be men of action, while the women are for quiet and home. The gun is ruling outside in the streets as the war for Irish freedom is pursued; and soon soldiers will be inside the tenement.

It is the tragic irony of the work that Donal, completely gunless, should be suspected of being a gunman on the run, and that he should see nothing wrong or dangerous in looking upon himself as, he says, the shadow of a gunman. It is a little exciting, the poet feels.

O’Casey’s satire mingles with his realistic picture of everyday life and conversation. It seems something like a miracle when he tells us all about these ordinary folk as he looks beyond, into the bloody city, and further still, into any world where human life is wantonly destroyed.

Seldom can there have been an early work of any writer to carry such a deeply forged stamp of genius.

Michael Pennington is chillingly moving as the imaginative, self-enclosed Davoren, and Norman Rodway perfectly conveys the simple terrors and would-be worldliness of Seumas Shields, the tinker. Together, these fine artists create a stark world of horror as they hold back while sweet Minnie, Donal’s love, is shot by the Black and Tans. Dearbhla Molloy gives a most tender and touching portrayal of this sad, lost young woman.

There are also excellent performances by Timothy Walker, Oliver Ford Davies, Barbara Kinghorn and Dennis Clinton, and designs that seem to belong exactly to the lower depths of Dublin in those monumentally troubled times.

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